Slightly off-shore dining

Supper club aims to hook the Sand Lake set


Is Orlando ready for another upmarket seafood joint, especially during these splurge-unfriendly times? Cameron Mitchell, Ocean Prime owner and current chairman of the Culinary Institute of America, thinks so, but if you trawl Sand Lake Road, you'll find plenty of fish in this proverbial sea. Noteworthy seafood restaurants on the strip include Bonefish, Roy's and Moonfish, all within a quarter-mile of his gleaming retro 'supper club,â?� and with many area restaurants reeling from recessionary disinterest on the part of diners, you have to wonder if all the grabbing hands are crumbling the pie. But confidence has its place in the business world, and Ocean Prime's undeniable swagger is what sets it apart from its fish-mongering neighbors.

The restaurant aims to channel the appeal of dining's glory days, and there's no doubt OP's the big fish when it comes to style ' aesthetes will marvel at the gossamer drapes, curvilinear design and dreamy nautical décor. If the restaurant were judged on flair alone, it'd receive top marks. If its service, fare, presentation and intangibles were as polished as its interior, it would certainly attain the lofty heights set by Orlando's other seafood supper club, the Oceanaire Seafood Room. As it stands, there's some work to be done. To wit: When asking for our water preference, I'd expect a server not to slur his speech; I'd also expect a server to remember to bring a bread basket (the sourdough-honey wheat bread was lovely when it finally arrived, minutes before we ordered dessert); and when entrees are served, I'd expect the server to clear the table area instead of gesturing with head nods and eye movements for me to do it. If this sounds like nitpicking, it is, but for a restaurant of this caliber, high expectations are justified.

I was disappointed to hear that the Alaskan red king crab legs were removed from the raw bar menu (it's available as an entrée), so I opted for the 'chilled colossal crab meat cocktailâ?� ($16) instead and found that there wasn't anything colossal about the meat, the serving platter or the flavor. Happily, the prime beef carpaccio ($14) was outstanding, and the side of beef short ribs stuffed inside a pipe bone was a nice touch.

Prime steaks range from a 7-ounce petite filet ($31) to a 22-ounce porterhouse ($48), but we were in a particularly piscatorial mood and tried the featured Alaskan halibut ($32). The fleshy fillet, dusted in Mitchell's own seasoning, was properly moist and sat atop a buttery champagne vin blanc sauce, but from essence to presentation, the dish just seemed uninspired. (I had the same fish at J. Alexander's during lunch and it was far superior, and half the price.) Though its edges were crisped, the Florida black grouper ($30) fared much better, and a la carte add-ons of jalapeño au gratin potatoes ($9) and sesame stir-fried snap peas ($8) were thoroughly devoured. Desserts, like the towering baked Alaska ($9) and the chocolate peanut butter torte ($8), are toothsome triumphs big enough for sharing.

Behind the stunning floor-to-ceiling wine repository, live music resounded from the cocktail lounge ('80s detritus on this particular night) and let me just say that nothing beats listening to 'Congaâ?� and 'Girls Just Want to Have Funâ?� while trying to enjoy a refined meal. Still, Ocean Prime has all the makings of a destination dining spot, more than just another posh see-and-be-seen joint littering the strip. Chef Todd Baggett (the Boheme, Manuel's on the 28th, Beluga, Moonfish) has the chops to raise the bar in the kitchen, and if the front of the house makes the necessary tweaks, the restaurant will flourish. For now, Ocean Prime isn't quite ready for prime time.


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